As the apparent Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has been receiving plenty of scrutiny: of his business career, of his policy flip-flops and, perhaps least fairly, his Mormon faith.
The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis – who reviewed my book in Sunday’s Washington Post – has posted a cogent summary of the hits Mormonism has taken this election cycle, from Southern Baptist Robert “Mormonism is a Cult” Jeffress to Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, who warns of the faith’s plutocratic character.
But, as MacGillis and others at TNR have recently pointed out, Mormonism also carries a powerful progressive strain, one that Mr. Romney exhibited as governor of Massachusetts and, indeed, his father showed as governor of Michigan. In an earlier piece, MacGillis wrote:
Romney’s liberal heresies on health care, gay rights, and abortion are well established. Less well known is that, as governor of Massachusetts, he was a smart-growth acolyte. He hinted at this predilection during the campaign in 2002. “Smart growth, or purposeful planning, is a concept that will be in the governor’s office if I’m elected,” he said. After winning, he created a new “Office for Commonwealth Development” to oversee the transportation, environment, and housing departments—and named as its chief Douglas Foy” [head of the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmental group].
This sort of public sector-led social engineering is consistent with Mormon values, as Matthew Bowman explains in this TNR post entitled “Mormonism’s Surprisingly Deep Affinity For Progressive Politics”:
[T]here is a particularly Mormon version of classical American progressivism to which Mitt Romney stands heir. These progressives believed that effective organization and the promotion of virtue went hand in hand; they are two manifestations of a single commitment, and the former can indeed promote the latter. In a nutshell, these progressives believed that public organization can promote a moral imperative, that technocratic bureaucracy can in fact change lives for the better.”
Mitt Romney’s progressive genealogy passed from this period through the northeastern Republicans of the 1950s and 1960s, like his father, George, or Nelson Rockefeller, or Thomas Dewey: good government Republicans who were confident that their business-honed competence was not only the best hope of American politics, but also was simply another manifestation of their efforts to cultivate virtue….[Romney] is a pragmatic technocrat who believes that competent management can solve humanity’s problems, nourish civilization, and even cultivate virtue.
To this discussion, I would add that there is a regional aspect to Mormonism’s progressive heritage. As I’ve put forth in American Nations, in my feature in the current magazine, and in recent postings here, there has never been one America, but rather several Americas, each tracing its origins back to a separate colonial project with distinct ethnographic, religious, and political characteristics. Today there are eleven, all told, one of the oldest and most powerful of which is Yankeedom, the Greater New England cultural space, which extends all across much of the Upper Great Lakes Region, and which I describe thusly:
Since the outset Yankeedom has put great emphasis on perfecting earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, community (rather than individual) empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public’s shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats, corporations, and other tyrannies.
If you hear echoes of Bowman’s description of Mormon thinking in this description of the Puritan legacy, that’s because Mormonism has Yankee roots. It was founded by a Vermont Yankee, Joseph Smith Jr., in Upstate New York, who led his largely-Yankee followers westward on a mission to create – like the Puritans – a new Zion, a more perfect and Godly society here on Earth. (This is in itself a break with the dominant religious traditions of the more southerly nations, which instead emphasized individual salvation in the hereafter.) After Smith’s assassination, his followers moved all the way to Utah, which even today is the state which has the highest percentage of people who report being of English ancestry on their census returns, narrowly edging out Yankee Vermont and Maine.
Although Yankeedom has become a bastion of liberalism, and the Mormons of the Far West are widely regarded as conservatives, this shared historical and cultural legacy can only help Mitt Romney in the Yankee-settled parts of the northeast, including Upstate New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That Romney was born in Yankeedom, the son of a governor of Michigan, and went on the be elected to the governorship of the Puritan-founded Commonwealth, only adds to his advantage over most of his GOP rivals in New Hampshire and across this populous region of our federation.
There’s another intriguing long-range political implication to Mormonism’s progressive thread: the potential for Utah to become dissatisfied with the Republican Party, just as many Yankees have. As the national GOP has embraced an almost exclusively Deep Southern agenda in recent decades – slash taxes on the wealthy, labor, environmental, and consumer safety protections, and the powers and reach of the federal government – it has lost support in Yankeedom, the region of its birth, precisely because of its rejection of a progressive tradition that long predates Dewey and Rockefeller.
As Patrick Doherty and Christopher Leinberger recently pointed out in these pages, Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City, has become something of a poster child for long-term, large-scale, public transport-supported, public-sector driven planning, with a rapidly expanding and extremely popular light rail system linking four counties. It’s an example of a sort of utopian communitarianism that is more likely to find support from the congressmen and women of Yankeedom, the Left Coast (the thin, Yankee-influenced coastal region from Monterey, California to Juneau, Alaska), or the Dutch-founded Big Apple than those from the Deep South or Greater Appalachia. A decade from now, it’s not impossible that a majority of Utahans could feel themselves as out of sync with the G.O.P. as their former governor (the global warming believer) Jon Huntsman, does now.